The Qur’an cannot be usurped: an interview with Amina Wadud. By Martina Sabra

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German freelance journalist Martina Sabra interviews Amina Wadud, a visiting scholar at Starr King School for Ministry in California renowned for leading a gender-inclusive Muslim prayer in New York in 2005, about her spiritual journey up to this controversial event and her ideas about “Islamic feminism”.

(Source: Qantara.de, 29 August 2008)

Bonn, Germany - Islam, gender equality and human rights are compatible – this is a basic conviction of Amina Wadud, author of several books about Islam and women. Martina Sabra interviewed the Islamic feminist at a recent conference about Women’s power in Islam in Germany.

Until the age of 20, you were a Christian. Your father was a Methodist minister. Today you are one of the best-known Muslim reform thinkers worldwide. Why did you become a Muslim?

Wadud: I was always interested in theological ideas. As you’re saying, my father was a Methodist minister. I was raised as a Christian and very, very interested in ideas about God, about morality, about human nature and about spirituality. So before converting to Islam I was a Buddhist and lived in an Ashram and practiced meditation, which I still practice today.

When I was 20, I stepped into a mosque not far from where I lived. I wanted to know about Islam. I am very interested in the relationship between the profane and the sacred.

For me, Islam gave me a language, and actually Arabic was an important part of it – it gave me the language of tawhid, the language of God’s intimate relationship with the creation, but also the power to bring harmony to things which are disparate. That for me is the epitome of surrender. Islam helped me to understand my experience with Christianity and Buddhism. It is a reasoned revelation. This is maybe not for everyone; some people have a more simplistic understanding of Islam. But this is how I lived it.

When I was given the opportunity to study a little bit about Islam, I was very impressed, especially with the Qur’an. For me, the Qur’an opened up a relationship between my logic, my reasoning, my understanding of the world, my love and desire for nature, and for the world beyond the world, for the unseen. And so I have developed my work specifically with the area of Qur’an and gender, and that is the area that I think it is sort of a gift to me because it is something that I love doing.

As a child, you witnessed the civil rights movement in the United States. As an adolescent, you say that you were very conscious about personal freedom and intellectual independence. Wasn’t that in strong contradiction with the conservative mainstream Islam of the 1970s?

Certainly, I faced many contradictions. The struggle to be Muslim was easiest at the beginning, when I made the transformation from my post-Christian, post-Buddhist state into being a Muslim. Then, knowledge was the main impetus. Now it is more difficult, there is more that I understand and therefore more responsibility. My perspective is part of a reform and that makes it sometimes difficult because it is not mainstream.

When I first began to work on things that I considered to be gender mainstream, or gender-inclusive, the notion of Islamic Feminism had not been discussed. I wrote Qur’an and Woman in the end of the 1980s. In fact, many see the book as the beginning of female-centred exegesis of the Qur’an, which is an important part of what we now recognise analytically as Islamic feminism. Muslim women are not all interested in Islamic Feminism. Some of them are not even interested in being Muslim. For me, I have not had a problem with Islam so much as I had a problem with the way in which Islam is practiced. And that this kind of Islam can sometimes be aggressive against women’s full rights.

In your writings, you often refer to Christian and Jewish religious thinkers, among others Paul Tillich and Martin Buber. In your books Qur’an and Woman and Inside the Gender Jihad you defend pluralism, the freedom of opinion and the right to be different from an Islamic perspective. According to your writings, the Qur’an should be re-read from a gender perspective and in the light of its historical context. Yet, the Qur’an is considered to be eternal and unchangeable. How does that match?

I think that unless you have had a real connection with the Qur’an, you will not understand how it is a force in history as well as in spirit. You will not be able to understand that there is cooperation between the reader and the text. You will say that there is some flaw with methodology. But you have to understand that the readers can use the text for whatever they want, because there is a dynamic relationship between the text and the interpretation. The text is both created in time but also evolves beyond time.

Could you give an example of how that works in practice?

We are now participating in a global reform movement for a Muslim personal status law, and the very fundamental basis for that yields back to the egalitarian trajectory of the Qur’an. The Qur’an did not complete that in the context of the prophet’s lifetime. But the Qur’an is not usurped by even its own historical context. But some people have grown up in a culture where the Qur’an is used for a narrow and restrictive interpretation so they consider that interpretation the only interpretation. And that’s problematic from my perspective. My work has shown that the interpretation is never complete. Meaning is never fixed.

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* Martina Sabra is a freelance writer based in Germany. This abridged article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews). The full text can be found at www.qantara.de.

Source: Qantara.de, 29 August 2008, www.qantara.de
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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